Three Studies for Disklavier and Mechanical Chihuahua

[Note: this article was originally drafted on July 23, 2015.]

After teaching at Berklee College of Music’s campus in sunny Valencia, Spain, for the past two years, I’m gearing up to head back to the US this fall, where I’ll be returning to my prior post at Berklee’s Boston campus (although I’m switching departments, from Film Scoring to Electronic Production and Design). Since graduating our latest class of master’s students last week, I’ve been spending time archiving some of my projects from the past two years. One of the quirkier among these is my Three Studies for Disklavier and Mechanical Chihuahua from early 2014.

I composed these super short pieces (about twenty seconds altogether) at the invitation of my friend the mad genius Ranjit Bhatnagar (we had the pleasure of bringing him over to Valencia as a visiting artist in the fall of 2013). He issued an open call for compositions that he could use as part of his installation Short Ride in a Fast Chihuahua, which was presented at the Qubit Machine Music festival, February 12-14, 2014, in New York City. The constraints were extreme: he needed compositions of exactly 26 regular beats at a tempo of 320 bpm, so that each beat could be triggered by a yip from his mechanical Chihuahua (detected via microphone). That comes out to just over six seconds, if you add some time for the resonance of the instrument. A composer was free to place as many notes of varying velocities on each beat as desired.

A Disklavier, as you may know, is a fully functional acoustic Yamaha grand piano that can also be controlled remotely, whether via real-time signals or a pre-recorded file (using the MIDI protocol). It’s like a fancy player piano. I suppose the first thing that occurs to most composers writing for this instrument is to seize the chance to devise something that would be impossible for a human performer to execute, perhaps along the lines of Conlon Nancarrow’s masterful player piano studies from the 50’s and 60’s or the more recent black MIDI phenomenon.

Given Ranjit’s constraints, a sophisticated rhythmic study of the type that Nancarrow frequently undertook was impossible, but harmony was wide open. So I thought it would be interesting to explore the relationship between harmony and timbre (which can kind of be thought of as the same thing) and see if I could perform a kind of additive synthesis on an acoustic piano.

Getting Max to talk to the Disklavier
Getting Max to talk to the Disklavier

This was the process for composing my first and third studies. First, I wrote a simple contrapuntal passage in two (first study) or three (third study) voices. Then I wrote a Max patch that, based on each note I composed, calculated a bunch of additional notes ascending from the original note, to be played at the same time, decreasing in volume as pitch increases. I believe I used a couple of different formulas, but all based on the way the harmonic series works (i.e., fundamental frequency multiplied by a regular sequence of numbers starting with 1). Since each “partial” generated in this way is not a simple sine wave, but another piano tone with its own rich timbre, the music gets dense in a hurry, but there’s a hard upper limit—the piano’s high C8—that keeps things from getting too crazy. There’s also necessarily a lot of rounding off of pitches going on, so that they land on a pitch the piano can play, with the result that on the upper end of the piano, most of the keys are being played, although, crucially, at different velocities.

So the result is that, for each of the fifty or so notes I originally composed, my program spit out around seven hundred notes for the piano to play for each of my six-second, twenty-six beat compositions. My original compositions were actually quite simple and modal, avoiding big leaps in pitch, in an effort to help all of the different pitches perceptually fuse into one complex timbre as they move around in parallel. (I may have been thinking a bit of the first of Stravinsky’s Three Pieces for String Quartet.)

Original sketches for studies #2 and #1 (I don't think I wrote out #3). (BTW, the scrawls on the top of the page are from shortly after I fractured my humerus at the end of 2012, hence a little sloppy.)
Original sketches for studies #2 and #1 (I don’t think I wrote out #3). (BTW, the scrawls on the top of the page are from shortly after I fractured my humerus at the end of 2012, hence a little sloppy.)
First Study
First Study
Third Study
Third Study

And I was perhaps even a bit surprised to hear that it actually works! If you focus on, for example, the middle voice of the third study, which starts on the fourth beat with a diatonic run from C below middle C up to F, it doesn’t sound like a normal piano sound, but something brighter, almost more like a Rhodes. The same is true, maybe a bit less pronounced, in the bass part of the first study.

To hear the difference, compare with the second study. This one was composed the old fashioned way; I wrote the parts out on paper and just wanted to see what I could do by employing the whole range of the piano at once, so maybe this one’s a bit closer to a Nancarrow piece. Here, the timbre of the piano is untransformed; it still sounds like a regular piano, albeit a very busy one.

Recording the Disklavier on the Ann Kreis Scoring Stage
Recording the Disklavier on the Ann Kreis Scoring Stage

Berklee staff engineer and assistant professor and all around friendly and quite capable guy Chris Wainright was the engineer; as I recall, his description of this music was that it evoked an ice cream truck being pushed off a cliff. We used a pair of Royer 121 ribbon mics (if you see photos of the session, there’s a third mic set up, but we only used two for this recording) and recorded on Berklee Valencia’s Ann Kreis Scoring Stage into an Avid System 5 mixer. Ostensibly, this session arose out of Chris’ desire to test a faulty ribbon mic, although I’m not sure how ideally my music ultimately suited this purpose. We didn’t use any reverb or EQ or any other post-processing; I thought these recordings were dense enough as they were.

Of course the idea of using a piano to synthesize new timbres has been explored before. I would perhaps be remiss not to mention the work of the Austrian composer Peter Ablinger who got a lot of attention for his piece “DEUS CANTANDO,” which presents the arresting phenomenon of a speaking piano, in 2009. His custom mechanical piano, designed by Winfried Ritsch, appears to have much greater resolution than a Disklavier (each note can be pulsed up to 16 times per second), allowing him to recreate the sound of a child’s voice reading “the text of the 2009 Declaration of the International Environmental Criminal Court that was founded at the World Venice Forum pursuant to an initiative of Adolfo Pérez Esquivel and the Dalai Lama” (all of this according to this Ars Electronica citation).

Thanks so much to Ranjit for the invitation to do this wacky thing! I invite you all to check out his fantastic work (maybe start with his brilliant Twitter bot Pentametron, which retweets, in rhymed pairs, tweets that happen to be in iambic pentameter).

please briefly describe the future of electronic music

I’ve been asked to perform at a “Non-academic Style Electroacoustic Music” concert at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music as part of The 2009 Shanghai International Electroacoustic Music Week. The concert’s being put together by Zhao Junyuan 昭骏园, also featuring Wang Changcun 王长存, Torturing Nurse, Mai Mai, and Junyuan’s band Power Wood Quality 木电质. Our concert occurs on the afternoon of October 21 from 2pm-5pm (discussion included) in the Conservatory’s Reporting Hall, 20 Fenyang Lu (near Fuxing Lu). I plan to present a concert version of Kaleidoscope Music.

The festival runs October 19-23 (plus workshops extending on either side), and the whole week should be fun. There’s lots of other good stuff on the program, including another visit to Shanghai from Neil Rolnick, and a performance by Bang on a Can All-Stars of works by Conlon Nancarrow, Steve Reich, Julia Wolfe, Tan Dun 谭盾, and others. Check out the complete schedule.

I’m looking forward to seeing Neil Rolnick again. He’s a computer music pioneer, and I remember listening to his A Robert Johnson Sampler as an undergrad at St. Olaf in the mid-90’s. He was in China last year for a show at the Central Conservatory in Beijing, and he stopped by Shanghai to play at a NOIShanghai event at Live Bar. We had a fascinating chat over Hunan food; he’s got interesting stories about everyone in music. (You can download A Robert Johnson Sampler and other works on his music page.)

I got to say, I’ve criticized the Shanghai Conservatory in the past for being insular and not taking a leading role in the city’s cultural life, but I have to publicly eat my words. It’s a really great gesture for them to invite other parts of Shanghai’s active new music community to come participate in this event. Good on ya, Shanghai Conservatory!

In preparation for the concert, I was asked to respond to the following questions.

1. your definition to electronic music?

I don’t know if electronic music has a useful definition anymore. Everything we listen to now is electronic. Most music is produced on a computer, even if it starts off as an acoustic recording. And almost all music we listen to is coming from an electronic device, a CD player, an iPod, a television, etc. Even most acoustic performances, other than strictly traditional classical performances, are usually amplified, with sound coming from speakers that are plugged in.

2. your opinion on “electronic music and noise; sound equipment, multimedia, new media”?

Probably the most worthless of those terms is “new media.” To me that just means, “We’ll think of a better term for this later.” All media was new at some point. Even so, I find myself using this term as an umbrella term out of convenience sometimes, to indicate recent art involving electricity that doesn’t fall into a clearer category.

“Noise” isn’t very useful either. The most useful definition of noise is something unpredictable, a series in which there’s no relationship between what’s happening now and what’s come before. In a computer, a stream of random numbers sent to the sound card is a literal definition of white noise. “Noise” has come to mean something harsh and anarchic and aggressive, but in fact, noise is a component of almost all sound. The lulling sound of waves on the shore or wind in the trees is noise, but it doesn’t come across as angry; it’s just nature.

I usually use “digital art” to describe my work, since a lot of it can only be done in the digital domain, using a computer. But I suppose if you really wanted, you could find analog ways to do a lot of what I’m doing.

3. please briefly describe the future of electronic music

Coming from a background in videogames, I fervently believe that interactivity and real-time algorithmic procedures are going to play an increasing role in how we experience music. People like me have been talking about this for a long time, but I don’t think it’s a failed vision of utopia; it’s just that there’s a lot of work left to do. On one hand, it’s the future of the CD, not as a physical medium, but a digital format. It’s also the proliferation of sound installation-like artworks in virtual spaces. Some things will be interactive, some things will non-interactive but ever-changing, and some things will continue to be linear experiences; it depends on what’s right for the idea the artist is trying to convey. We need to devise new formats and new experiences for these formats, rather than to try to retrofit existing, linear music into non-linear formats.

I’d like to think multi-channel sound will play a prominent role in the future of music, but I’m somewhat less optimistic on this front, given that most people can’t properly set up a 5.1 system in their living rooms. But we can hope. And of course, there needs to be compelling content authored for multi-channel formats to encourage people to configure their systems properly. When we finally get to the point where we can beam music directly into peoples’ brains, then this problem will finally go away.

4. please recommend a electronic music work, and your comment on it?

A piece I’ve been talking about a lot lately is Brian Eno’s 77 Million Paintings (2006). It comes very close to the idea of a virtual, portable audiovisual installation. It’s not a CD or DVD, but a program you install on your computer, and every time you run it, it generates a new version of the piece; hence the 77 million paintings of the title. The audio and visual components are not synthesized, but prepared in advance, which gives them a rough, natural, hand-manipulated quality. But the juxtapositions are determined in real-time by the program, so that you never see and hear the same thing twice. The images change very slowly, to the point that you’re not sure if the images are changing or if your eyes are simply adjusting to the color. I think that’s part of the genius of Brian Eno, a quality shared by his iPhone application Bloom, operating on the edge of perception.

I think the piece is almost perfect, but it’s still got a problem regarding the forum in which it is appreciated. Since you’ve got to install the program on your computer, you’re probably experiencing it on a computer monitor, sitting in an office chair, with your face several inches from the screen, alone, listening to the sound on poor quality computer monitors. It lacks a sense of space. The ideal forum for a piece like this is a living room. If the program could be run on a game console such as an Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3, you could watch it on your HDTV, listen to it in 5.1 on high quality speakers, while lounging on your couch with friends. The game console is the closest thing we have to a distribution platform for sound installations.

5. what’s the foundation to learn electronic music? is it necessary to learn classic music first?

If classical music is well taught, there is no difference. Music is sound organized in time. Digital sound synthesis is music theory. Composers have always tried to organize sound with the tools at their disposal. In order to create more sophisticated structures, systems were created, rules were established. Rules and systems must serve the music. Common Practice Era harmony is one possible outcome of this line of thinking, but there are others, and thinking evolves over time. In music, as with the other arts, we are in a continual conversation with history, as artists have always been, and a responsible artist questions what is received from history before putting it to use.

I have very little patience for arguments that there’s some inherent difference between music and sound. This usually stems from some poor or incomplete musical training; people think that if something can’t be played on a piano or written on a five-line staff, it can’t be music.

6. please talk about electronic, compute, hearing, technology and perception

One observation I’d make is that all music is indeterminate in some regard (and no music is indeterminate in every regard). A group of musicians performing a piece of acoustic music will play it slightly differently each time, with subtle inconsistencies in phrasing, volume, articulation, intonation, etc. In fact, these inconsistencies are often desirable, resulting in what we call “warmth” or “richness” in a performance. Even purely electronic pieces vary from performance to performance, depending on the playback equipment, the acoustical environment, and the audience’s position in it. And even if every other parameter could be fixed, the listener’s psychological state would be different at each listening, if for no other reason than the very fact of having heard the piece one more time.

Having acknowledged this, I find it useful to explore indeterminacy as an overt parameter of my music, to write music that encompasses all possible permutations, and to try to quantify what these permutations might mean.

7. please let us know your personal understanding of electronic music.

I’m interested in using electronics exploring non-linear structures. If you define a structure that has some variability built into it, a computer is the most efficient tool to quickly examine and evaluate all possible permutations of that structure. I think this is a unique aspect of modern existence, with which everyone must grapple, consciously or not. So much of what we encounter everyday is non-linear, web pages for example, and mediated by technology. The sheer volume of information coming at us is so much greater than any previous generation has encountered, and we need tools to navigate it. Our lives have become tangled up in technology, which creates new challenges, but in understanding technology we can find new perspectives on the world around us.